Michael's research examines novel and innovative approaches to organizing that seek to foster greater empowerment, collaboration and flexibility. Much of his research explores the dynamics and consequences of organizing without hierarchical authority, a phenomenon he labels self-managing organizations. Because of the theoretical and empirical novelty of this phenomenon, he employs an inductive qualitative approach to explore the experience of working in such systems and to build testable theories. In addition, he draws on field experiments to assess the consequences of such structures for individual, team and organizational outcomes. Based on this work, Michael was recently selected as a finalist for the Organization Science / INFORMS Dissertation Proposal Competition.
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A New Form of Postbureaucratic Organizing: Fostering Flexible Coordination and Employee Freedom Through Clear and Dynamic Role Boundaries
Despite being described more than a half century ago, the dominant approach to postbureaucratic organizing remains the organic structure. Such structures minimize vertical constraints by decentralizing authority and horizontal structural by reducing role clarity and role formalization. As a result of their lack of formal structure, organic structures offer high degrees of freedom and flexibility but suffer from an inability to facilitate effective coordination. This study considers an alternative approach to postbureaucratic organizing distinct form the organic structure: an organization that decentralized authority but dramatically increased the degree to which roles formalized. Prior theory suggests that high degrees of role formalization would limit organizational flexibility and employee freedom. In contrast, leveraging rich ethnographic data, I find that role formalization – in the context of decentralized authority and when made visible and easily revisable – supported both flexible coordination and employee freedom by establishing clear and dynamic role boundaries that individuals attended to in the course of doing their work and revised as needed. This study reveals an alternative approach to transcending the limitations bureaucracy that may enable organizations to resolve a core tension: how to enable freedom and flexibility without sacrificing coordination.
When and For Whom Does Self-Management Work? Examining the Factors that Influence When Radical Decentralization Improves Employee Work Experience
This project explores the consequences of radical decentralization through a 12-month controlled field experiment. Much practitioner and scholarly rhetoric related to radical decentralization can be hyperbolic, promising occupational nirvana. However, the struggles of some notable organizations that have radically decentralized authority, such as Zappos and Github, indicate that reality is more complicated than the rhetoric. Drawing on qualitative and quantitative data from a field experiment where teams in the treatment condition adopted a radically decentralized authority structure while teams in the control condition continued to operate with hierarchical authority, I examine the effect of radical decentralization on employee experience at work and explore what factors—such as individual trait differences, prior performance, and managerial style—moderate these relationships. Preliminary analysis suggests that radical decentralization did not improve employee empowerment, engagement, or job satisfaction for the average employee. Rather, I find that decentralization improves employee work experience only for certain individuals: namely, high performers, those who showed initial interest in operating in a decentralized structure, and those working in a psychologically safe environment. These results reveal the mixed effects that radical decentralization can have on individuals and also highlight the human capital and group climate conditions that influence when decentralization is likely to have a positive effect on employee experience at work.
Fostering Positive Relational Dynamics in Teams: The Power of Spaces and Interaction Scripts (Academy of Management Journal, 2019)
Despite well-accepted understanding that relational dynamics characterized by respect, openness and connectedness are critical for healthy team functioning, we know little about how to foster such dynamics. Drawing on observation and interview data from an intervention that fostered positive change in the relational dynamics of a global distributed team, this paper theorizes the mechanisms that enabled a move toward positive relational dynamics. We found that the intervention brought about relational changes by not only creating spaces where the team could experiment with new forms of interaction, but also by utilizing interaction scripts – concrete guidelines for interaction that specify content parameters and participation rules. We find that the combination of spaces and interaction scripts was critical for helping the team enact counter-normative forms of interpersonal sharing that led to the emergence of positive relational dynamics. While existing research has highlighted the importance of spaces for enabling positive relational change, this paper theorizes the complementary role that interaction scripts can play in the change process. These findings have implications for research on positive relationships at work, organizational change, and global and geographically dispersed teams. (Co-authored with Leslie Perlow and Melissa Mazmanian)
Self-Managing Organizations - Exploring the Limits of Less-Hierarchical Organizing (Research in Organizational Behavior, 2017)
Fascination with organizations that eschew the conventional managerial hierarchy and instead radically decentralize authority has been longstanding, albeit at the margins of scholarly and practitioner attention. Recently, however, organizational experiments in radical decentralization have gained mainstream consideration, giving rise to a need for new theory and new research. This paper reviews the literature on less-hierarchical organizing and identifies three categories of research: post-bureaucratic organizations, humanistic management and organizational democracy. Despite this extensive prior work, scholarly understanding of radical decentralization remains limited. Using the term self-managing organizations to capture efforts that radically decentralize authority in a formal and systematic way throughout the organization, we set forth a research agenda to better understand less-hierarchical organizing at its limits. (Co-authored with Amy Edmondson)
Beyond the Holacracy Hype: The Overwrought Claims - and Actual Promise - of the Next Generation of Self-Managed Teams (Harvard Business Review, 2016)
Holacracy and other forms of self-organization have been getting a lot of press. Proponents hail them as "flat" environments that foster flexibility, engagement, productivity, and efficiency. Critics say they're naive, unrealistic experiments. We argue, using evidence from a multi-year research agenda at several mainstream organizations that have adopted these forms, that neither view is quite right. Although the new forms (built upon on a half-century of research on and experience with self-managed teams) can help organizations become more adaptable and nimble, most companies shouldn't adopt their principles wholesale. A piecemeal approach usually makes sense. Organizations can use elements of self-management in areas where the need for adaptability is high, and traditional models where reliability is paramount. (Co-authored with Ethan Bernstein, John Bunch and Niko Canner)
New Prospects for Organizational Democracy?: How the Joint Pursuit of Social and Financial Goals Challenges Traditional Organizational Designs (Capitalism Beyond Mutuality, 2018)
This book chapter argues that less-hierarchical designs, specifically democratic approaches to organizing, could have increasing relevance given the growing emphasis on social responsibility in corporations. Drawing on parallels with theories of political democracy, we argue that organizational democracy’s ability to integrate diverse viewpoints can support the joint pursuit of commercial and social objectives. We proceed, first, by drawing on an extensive literature review to assess the ways in which organizational democracy has been conceptualized in recent decades, and to document the relative lack of substantive discussion about it in comparison with other alternatives to hierarchy. We then characterize the recent surge of socially engaged models of enterprise and press the case that this turning point warrants reconsideration of the merits of organizational democracy. (Co-authored with Julie Batillana and Michael Fuerstein)